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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


The Sea versus Anna: Metaphoric Contrarieties

Eileen Herrmann-Miller
Dominican University of California

Tolstoy said that:

…a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art.  In this freezing of…personality from its separation and isolation, in this unity of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art (“What Is Art?”  In Bates 516).

In short, art connects us with others, and artists throughout the ages have sought ways in which to universalize their work through metaphorical discourse, or language which breaks away from the literal and the direct significance of words to create special meaning and extraordinary effects.  Since the Romantics, the study of metaphor has blossomed through the work of critics such as W.J. Bates who argue for an organic philosophy of art, reflecting a kind of transcendentalism, pointing to an incomprehensible reality beyond experience (514).  We have come to privilege the imagination, and the fanciful imagination is never more obviously at work than when it coins a good metaphor.  We have come to disdain the literal:  literalism, we believe, merely translates reality the way it appears to be, and thus is limited to a conceptual status quo; yet literalism does have its place in art, for in order to transcend the literal, we must know the literal.  Without rationality, without literalism, how could an excursion be made into metaphor?  Perhaps we should not frame the issue in oppositional terms—metaphorical versus literal discourse, but consider more the kinds of metaphors employed by artists, including their alterability and universality.   My paper will probe how O’Neill’s Anna Christie taps into a universal metaphorical world while not disdaining the literal.  But before I get to that play, I would like to share some background on metaphor.

From the Greek, “metaphor” means “to carry something across” or “to transfer.”   Metaphors are comparisons that identify one object or action in terms of another—webs of associations if you will in which we ascribe qualities of the second object or action to the first:  For example:  “My love is a rose” does not literally mean that this person’s love is a rose, but suggests qualities of a well-known flower which can be attributed to the beloved.   I. A. Richards, would call the beloved  the tenor, or the subject of comparison, while the rose would be the vehicle—the image by which this idea is conveyed.  Thus, the comparison of beloved to rose creates a powerful image in our mind’s eye, allowing us to visualize the lover’s message, though we may be unable to articulate exactly that message.  Such a statement—“my love is a rose”--transcends language; and Aristotle, who began the discussion of metaphor in his analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, would likely hail the metaphor as “the mark of genius,” for, as he said, to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”

Aristotle, of course, knew whereof he spoke.  We now know how metaphorically rich Oedipus Rex is.  What Oedipus “carried over,” or translated for all time, is the world of a son who slays his father, beds his mother, and yet must continue to exist.   Oedipus himself remains an unnamed metaphor until the twentieth century when an entire complex—the Oedipus complex—is named after this young man.

Metaphor plays a central role in tragedy and in “mimesis”—a linguistic theory which posits that art should mirror nature and “show” rather than “tell” what may happen at any time or place if certain acts are engaged in, according to the “law of probability” or “necessity.”  Tragedy, in effect, creates a cause-and-effect chain and makes a statement regarding the way the world operates--tragically.  Tragedians use metaphor to give meaning to the suffering we experience; without their translation, without their tragic appreciation of life, our humanity would suffer.

Reflections on how metaphors make meaning help describe and give voice to how we experience tragedy.  Consider King Lear.  Lear commits the sin of pride; that sin gains him entrance into the base world that his daughters Goneril and Regan inhabit (thus Lear cuts himself off—for a time—from the “good” world of Cordelia); his descent into madness, if you will, is a felt experience of evil and leads to some of tragedy’s ripest (most mature) reflections on betrayal, goodness/evil, the ends of man, etc.  Numerous metaphors abound in Lear, including those referring to animals; sight/blindness; nature and weather—all propel the play to its tragic ending.  But the play does not just contain metaphors; the metaphors work so well in Lear, its trajectory leading us metaphorically from scene to scene, Act to Act, that the play comes to exist on a metaphoric plane.  At the conclusion of the play, we have entered into a tragic realm, fully able to translate Lear’s pain into our experience of the movements of our world, embracing Lear’s new-found insights as our own.

In modern drama, we need only recall the metaphoric and transcendent world Ibsen creates in A Doll’s House where metaphors reinforcing the idea of Nora  as a decorative plaything from which she need escape reign; or of Williams’s glass menagerie—that metaphoric, fragile world of light/dark and shadow, easily obliterated, resembling all the small and tender things that relieve life’s austerity; or of August Wilson’s Fences, and of Troy Maxson, the Negro League slugger who merges all his baseball metaphors with his reflections on death (“Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner”); baseball is the best time of Maxson’s life but also the death of his dreams and hopes.  It is safe to say that the drama we all revere so much exemplifies metaphoric heft—the ability to lift the play into another realm entirely.

As we do in the work of Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc., when we experience O’Neill’s work, we enter the world of metaphor.  What an accomplishment!  Let me remind you that American drama at the turn of the century—pre O’Neill—did not exist on a metaphorically rich tragic plane.  While American drama now appears to be more nuanced than we previously thought, and thus we find it somewhat more difficult to consider it as some kind of monolithic reality, we can say this about nineteenth and early twentieth-century American drama:  that that drama shows an appreciation for comedies of manners, melodrama, and tragic comedies that were geared primarily towards a consumer-driven culture which avoided ambiguity and even the contentious issues of the day, and instead appealed to the universal need of theatre patrons to laugh or cry easily—to be entertained.  Such drama relies more on what is already known rather well than upon the richly imaginative and suggestive world of metaphor.  Plays such as The Contrast (Royall Tyler), with its theme of the contrast between innocence (America) and experience (Europe), or even the wildly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its stereotypical characters depicting the divide between whites and blacks reflect playwrights tuned into a nation more absorbed with its own identity and theatre-goers who wanted simple “truths.”

We know of course that O’Neill did not want to emulate the theatre of his immediate predecessors.  He did want a living theatre.  What O’Neill did as a result was to create a more psychological theatre infused with tragic metaphoric content, and, in the process, throw all subsequent American playwrights a lifeline.  When we talk about O’Neill’s transforming American drama, or of being the “father” of the modern American theatre, what we are really saying is that O’Neill plugged the twentieth-century American stage into a classic conception of tragedy—that he showed us that it was possible to transport the spectators of his plays into another fundamentally tragic realm.  This is really what we are saying.  You need simply reflect upon the rich metaphors that govern O’Neill’s work and the pictures that you create in your mind, the tragic places that you visit when you recall those elms that evoke such desire in Desire Under the Elms; the inconstant moon which presides over those misbegotten lovers in Moon for the Misbegotten; that long day which indeed becomes a journey into that dark night of the soul.

In O’Neill’s early work, Anna Christie is strongly metaphorical and transports us to another level.  Anna Christie relies upon the central symbol of the sea which metaphorically gives rise to the ideas we have—and those we create—of the sea,  including abundance, adventure, discovery, fertility, refreshment, primordial creation, unfathomable truth and wisdom—all positive ideas.  On the flip side, the sea further represents wildness, destruction, rebelliousness.  The sea is a clear, strong, universal symbol which contains some ideas we already have, as well as some ideas we are willing to metaphorically explore.  We know the sea literally—its power, beauty and destructiveness, and we know it metaphorically:  the sea brings us to another place entirely.  One thinks of how we metaphorically employ notions of the sea:  to “be at sea” means to be at a loss; to be “between the devil and the deep sea” means to exist between two evils equally hazardous; when we refer to someone “sea-born,” we are referring to a universal mythological motif referring to the love or mother goddess rising from the sea—the metaphorical signification is immaculate conception.  We create all these metaphoric meanings out of the symbolic sea.

In Anna Christie, Chris reminds us of all the negatives of the sea; he hates the sea, and quarrels with the sea’s contrariness—his remarks about the sea being a devil seem to us somewhat illogical and overly emotional.   We recall Chris’s many references to “dat ole davil sea [which] make dem crazy fools with her dirty tricks.”  By naming the sea a devil, we might assume that Chris is faulting the sea for his inexcusable desertion of Anna and her mother for the sea.  He seems to have no logical reason to proffer for his bad behavior.   Yet, part of the contrariness of this play is that Chris does have reason to hate the sea.  We know that Chris has lost two sons and two brothers to the sea .  He has literally experienced the destructive force of the sea; for Chris, the sea is both literally and metaphorically fatefully destructive.   And, since O’Neill never explains Chris’s behavior towards Anna and her mother, might we not assume that Chris is correct on some level:  that the sea has power to charm and entice men to act in inexplicable ways to their detriment?

However, Chris also underscores the other side of the sea:  its relationship to divinity.  Before Mat boards the barge and meets Anna, Chris has a premonition:  “Dat ole davil sea, she ain’t God!”  In one sentence, Chris has positioned the sea between two opposing divinities.  Which is it?  If the sea in some sense represents a destructive evil, the sea for Chris also represents goodness and purity: “…tug come and we got towed out on voyage—just water all round, and sea, and fresh air.”  Anna reinforces his appreciation of the sea –and none of his distrust.  She says being on the sea makes her feel clean and reborn, a “right” place, a place she’d been missing, a place where she can forget everything that has happened to her.  In short, on the barge, she feels reborn.  Metaphorically, these lines carry us along to an untranslatable appreciation for the sea.  But we remain confused.  Is the sea then some unrealizable dream or is it a lure towards destruction?  In fact, what ideas we glean about the sea from Chris’s first-hand knowledge are about the confounded double nature of that beautiful sea—to both nurture and purify as well as to destroy.  An untranslatable moment.

Against the swirling waters of the sea, O’Neill juxtaposes the land—the earth, an eternal element which we associate with harvest and bounty; the earth is the “container of life;” the earth can be an “earthly paradise”--a place where death and decay are non-existent.  An “earthy” person is one connected to what is basic in life.  The farm is of the earth, the place we associate with natural growth, sustenance and nurturance.  And, for Chris, the earth—the farm—is all of this and much more.  The irony of course is that Chris has placed Anna in the care of her cousins on a St. Paul, Minnesota farm when she was only five because in his mind, and in the minds of most of us, he believes “the farm is the best place for a child.  We take his meaning metaphorically.

Anna has spent fifteen years of her life, critical in her formation as a young girl, on the farm.  We find out that the youngest son on the farm started her off on a life of prostitution.  Anna has first-hand knowledge of the farm.  For Anna, the farm is a perversion and she indicts it: the farm is a place where she had to “slave for all of ‘em,” where she was only a “poor relation.”  We take her metaphoric meaning.  The two understandings of the farm do not jibe.

When we meet her, Anna has become the prototype of a fallen woman—rootless, bitter, cynical and hard at the age of 20, “run down in health, “plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world’s oldest profession,” out of the hospital only two weeks where she was placed due to her sickness in jail.  We can literally appreciate why she is confused and muddled:  left by her father, abused by her relatives, thrown onto her own resources.  When we meet her, she needs more than herself to survive; she is without direction and reminiscent of the swirling sea—she is metaphorically “at sea” and then O’Neill places her literally at sea.  Thus, O’Neill asks us to consider the sea with all its attendant metaphorical meaning, confronting, in Anna, a woman from the farm—land thought to be pure but perhaps more treacherous than the sea.  The play offers opposing notions of the farm.

Perhaps O’Neill wanted us to question what indeed happens on farms in Minnesota and indeed through the United States?  Even before this 1922 play, in 1910 it was recognized that the “supply of women did not come as is largely thought from the ranks of those willing or seeking to enter this life” (New York City Research Committee, p. xxxii).  Rather, it was a closely held secret that many of these women came to prostitution from farms such as the one that Anna came from—a fact relatively unexplored since prostitution was an indelicate subject that could be mentioned in public only in the most subtle manner.  (One wonders how Anna Christie avoided the censorship of the time.  Indeed, Anna Christie might have been considered an immoral play under a 1909 law passed against immoral plays and exhibits (N.Y. City Research Committee, p. 174).

Moreover, O’Neill further adds to the play’s contrariness by giving his heroine a Christian name which belies her sordid past.   O’Neill suggests that in this fallen Anna, we might see the semblances of religiosity and myth.  From the Greek, “Anna,” means “grace,” and our Christian iconographic memory invokes St. Ann, the mother of Mary, wife of St. Joachim, bound to the land, tender of sheep; St. Ann, childless until an angel appears to her telling her she would bear a child (Mary), becomes the woman behind James Joyce’s heroine in Finnegans Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle, a personification of the River Liffey flowing through Dublin.

But Anna is St. Ann in potentiality only; when we meet her, Anna is one in need of a time out.  That respite comes to her on a barge moving between land and water—the barge, which we symbolically identify with an ark, is a place of refuge and asylum, where various heroes (including Moses and Perseus) were saved from murder.  As Chris moves between land and water, clinging to his barge, he takes Anna with him.  After ten days on the barge, Anna is transformed—everything is different for her; she says she wouldn’t have missed the fog for the world—that fog makes her feel clean, liked she has just bathed.  We know what that feels like—another untranslatable moment.

But is she really transformed?  The question the play poses is:  is there really a salvation to be had for someone like Anna?  Has she been through too much?  Is she too hardened into badness?  Does forgiveness exist?  How responsible, how culpable is she for her own actions?  Men have been the cause of her downfall she says.  Is she simply passing off responsibility for her condition to others?  Anna seems coarse, a true lady of the night, ready to defend herself at a moment’s notice against men:  “God damn ‘em!  I hate ‘em!  Hate ‘em!” In Mat’s love, O’Neill throws her a lifeline.  Anna has “sized” Mat up as a “different kind of man”—a “sea man” she calls him--as different from the ones on land as water is from mud.”  The stakes are high.  When Mat initially rejects her, she is resigned to adopting her old life—his rejection of her confirms her inability to cope:  “Don’t you see I’m licked?  Why d’you want to keep on kicking me?”

A key moment comes when Mat comes back after his two-day binge and they confront each other.  Anna has been waiting—like a “damn fool,” for him.  Not seeing her, Mat calls himself a “fool” and a  “great jackass” to come back.  Initially upset that she’s gone, then joyful when he sees her bag, doubt overwhelms him:  he suspects she’s gone out to ply her trade ashore. He says he will wait until she comes back and will choke her. Anna overhears him; her face “grows hard;” she confronts him with a revolver.  We feel she’s fully capable of pulling the trigger—and yet she’s overcome by Mat’s wild grief:  he gives her permission to shoot him; she drops the gun, and their hostility is spent.  Large emotions that end in a whimper; we feel that this fragile moment could just as easily have ended poorly.

Where we are brought at the end of Anna Christie is to a place between water and land—an age-old unnamed place in our metaphoric imagination, an uneasy place:  we are neither on water, nor on terra firma, where we wait with Anna to see what will happen next—a point of uncertainty.  We are asked by O’Neill to stay here awhile, and to struggle with uncertainty.  In essence, where the dramatic tension lies in the play—where O’Neill metaphorically leads us to--is that space between where Anna has been (the land, with all of its attendant evils), and the sea—that great unknown.  Moreover, we are forced to leave with our questions unanswered.  Will the siren song of the sea—exemplified by its power to mesmerize all who come in contact with it—including, it seems, Chris, and perhaps Anna’s new love Mat—do her in?  Will Mat desert her the way Chris deserted Anna’s mother?  Is there anything in Chris’s fears for Anna regarding the sea?  The brilliance of O’Neill—the modernity of him--is that he doesn’t sort it out for us.  O’Neill shows us Anna’s extreme vulnerability before her love, and her desperate desire to belong to someone/somewhere.  We hope Anna, our metaphoric subject—tenor—will find a new life through the vehicle of the sea, but we’re not sure.  Will she ultimately outgrow these men?  Who can contain her after all?  Mat?  Her father?  Will her life be tragic?

O’Neill ends the play on a note of distrust, as both Chris and Mat ship out together, leaving Anna—once again—deserted.  Chris has the final word of the play:  “Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time.  You can’t see vhere you vas going, no.  Only dat ole davil, sea—she knows!”  From this ending, the best we can believe is that Anna has, for a short time, been brought more in alignment with happiness.  By juxtaposing the sea against the land, connected by a barge, O’Neill taps into our metaphoric imaginations and shows his ability to translate one world into another world.  He allows us to roam within our own metaphoric uncertainty.


Bates, W.J.  Criticism:  The Major Texts.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

The Research Committee or The Committee of Fourteen.  The Social Evil in New York City:  A Study of Law Enforcement.  New York:  Andrew H. Kellogg, Co. 1910.

[This paper was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]



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